A dramatic excerpt from a new memoir by Dave Greenberg from the Westpac rescue helicopter service. Includes kicker.
I was off flying duty but at work catching up on paperwork when around lunchtime the helicopter was called out for an urgent transfer of a patient. About 35 minutes later, ambulance control called asking if our backup helicopter was available for a “triple A” — a severe medical condition — in Paraparaumu, a 15-minute flight north of Wellington.
Time is always of the essence when someone has a leaking AAA. Even if the patient gets to surgery before they bleed to death, the chance of them dying is greater than 50 per cent.
As I was pulling the helicopter out of the hangar, my cell phone rang and I saw it was my best mate Doug. I answered and before he could say a word, I told him I couldn’t talk because I was getting ready to go flying. I was about to hang up on him when he yelled out: “Wait, it’s urgent!”
Doug is one of the people who understands what it means when I say I’m going flying, so for him to yell out like that stopped me in my tracks.
He said he’d just had a call from his mum who was in a panic. His dad hadn’t returned from running errands and she’d heard that he’d collapsed, and an ambulance had been called. She couldn’t find out anything and he hoped I might be able to get more information.
I got a horrible feeling as soon as Doug told me his dad was in trouble, and worried that it was his father John that we were going to pick up. The job was quickly changing from being a straightforward mission to a very personal one. Doug and his family were close to me. I had been to many of their family and social gatherings, and I had stayed at his parents’ house several times.
I promised Doug I’d see what I could find out. I called ambulance comms and it didn’t look promising; the only serious job going on in Kapiti was the one we were responding to.
As soon as David Boyadjian, the paramedic, arrived we headed to Coastlands Mall. I texted Doug and told him where we were headed and that I would let him know as soon as we landed if the patient was his dad.
We circled above the mall, The fire brigade had set up a good landing zone. As soon as the skids touched the ground, I leapt out and went around back to guard the tail rotor — this is a critical task until the rotors stopped spinning. I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to find out if our patient was John. Yet my training was drilled into me — safety first. I waited for the rotors to stop spinning.
As soon as I could, I dashed across to where the paramedics were working on the patient. It was John. He was lying on the ground, pale, sweaty, with a swollen stomach and in intense pain.
Any ambulance officer in the world will tell you that one of the best bits of medical care we carry with us is compassion. A reassuring smile, holding a hand or touching a shoulder are the best things we bring to some patients. That’s not the case with a leaking AAA. The patient needs plenty of IV fluids to replace the blood draining into their body cavity. They need oxygen. And they need surgery. However, compassion is still good. I made my way to his side, his eyes were closed.
“John, it’s Dave,” I said. I took his hand and gave it a squeeze.
His eyes opened and he gave me a bit of smile. “Hi Dave, funny running into you,” he said. I was relieved that he was semi-conscious, seemed alert, recognised me and still had his sense of humour. All positive signs.
As expected, a medical team was waiting when we arrived in the Emergency Department (ED). Doug was there too. He looked more upset than I’d ever seen him, but he managed to hide all his emotion as he said hello to his dad.
After just a few minutes in ED, John was sent upstairs where a surgical team was preparing for immediate surgery. At times like this, my red helicopter suit and a set of hospital access cards were useful as it meant Doug and I could get into the lift and escort his dad up to theatre level.
There is a staging area between the lifts and the sterile operating theatres where many things, including paperwork, are completed. As we arrived, I saw a familiar scene unfold, but for Doug it must have looked like chaos — five or six doctors and nurses in surgical gowns, talking to each other, talking to John while they poked and prodded him, filling out forms — all requirements before surgery.
Finally, hours later, word came that John was out of surgery and was doing okay. The hugs and tears of happiness flowed. We had all prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best, in our own way.
John was eventually brought to ICU and the family was allowed in to see him. He had a breathing tube down his throat, tubes and wires running around his body, and was swollen and pale. I spend a lot of time around patients looking like this and it never bothers me, but that day it did. If I was troubled by it, I could only imagine how it was making the others feel.
A while later I went home to grab a shower and have something to eat. It’d been an exhausting day and I was drained.
Around 10pm, I got a huge surprise when Doug called to say that his dad had already had the breathing tube removed and he was groggy, but awake. It was the best news any of us could have hoped for. I felt elated that that I was part of a team that not only did great things, but had helped save someone very close to me.
I happily drifted off to sleep at about 11pm on September 11, 2001.
Emergency Response: Life, Death and Helicopters by Dave Greenberg (Penguin, $40) is available at Unity Books.